Our Given Body: Roe v Wade

Second wave feminism shines a long beam still on the question of abortion. Wherever young feminists and other activists sit vis a vis arguments about the ‘assignment’ of sex and gender at birth, both something of the passion born specifically of women’s connection to abortion, and second wave feminism’s modern raising of abortion to the status of a woman’s right, seem to have fuelled the recent demonstrations and massive outpourings around Roe v Wade.

The slogan ‘We won’t go back’ meant clearly enough that ‘we won’t go back’ to before there were open and safe abortion services, where women wouldn’t bleed to death at the hands of backyard abortionists; which effectively means before second wave feminism. Abortion visibility and rights were an achievement of that diverse movement, an issue around which both the liberal feminists of old and social feminists would readily join together in political demand, even if their analyses of women’s position and of the sexual ‘economy’ between men and women differed significantly. They even jointly used the notion of ‘right’, even if, again, it meant something rather different in the hands of liberal individualists and those others who sought to trace out histories of women’s relationships to systems of social positioning, if not systematic abuse, or the social relations of ‘oppression’, in the old lingo.

The slogan ramifies further: we won’t go back to being that kind of woman; the woman who had no rights; whose body was shrouded in ‘mystery’ and relegated to the private; to a realm where ‘freedom’, or discourses of freedom, were a practical and logical non-starter, because everything pointed to women’s bodies being in the realm only of the given. How to lift the body into the realm of discourse has in fact been a key focus of social theory throughout the whole post Second World War period, in a sense framing the second wave, and amplified in every wave since.

‘We won’t go back’, then, indicates a history of successful abortion struggles, perhaps a Progress narrative in terms of rights, while the passion, it might be surmised, still relates to women’s given bodies, as well as to the process of psychical embodiment—here figured in the relationship, actual or potential, of women to abortion. Indeed if the abortion debate is especially impassioned on the side of the feminists, and considered in Manichean terms by (some) pro-life advocates on the other, it is arguably because women’s bodies—which bleed and get pregnant—and the specific passions lived through them—pain, fear, death, joy around the reproductive complex—set some basic structure, context or force-field that in key ways grounds women’s experience of their bodies and their selves, and in turn the terms of the abortion debate.

This is an unpopular notion in today’s culture of radical choice, individually driven and offered in various technologies, where bodies are said to mean nothing (not to hold presumptive meaning). But while it may be true that bodies never mean anything purely, and are never only biological entities, and certainly of themselves never simply authorise right forms of conduct—for example God-given femininity or a notion of natural motherhood, as if it is not always enculturated—they are both always-already symbolically present in the culture as potential frameworks of meaning and an unavoidable substrate of individual personhood. Love them or hate them, women’s bodies shape elements of common life, if varied experience, among girls and women.

We can trace some of this force-field in the typical ways in which second wave feminists and anti-abortion advocates have figured the body in different but equally visceral images and narratives. That these still reach into the public arguments today, a setting in which scientific technologies confirm quite new realms of radical ‘freedom’ around sex and gender and undergird new disciplines around chosen identities, suggests still that there is something unable to be fully elided in woman’s body.

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Photographs of dead foetuses make this visceral connection of women to their bodies and given sex plain.  Such photos were and remain a standard of anti-abortion protests and the pro-life imaginary, and it is indeed hard not to have a visceral reaction to them. Of course this is part of their purpose. They are disturbing, gross and frightening. They set you back. They are a powerful visual ‘outing’ of the literally visceral and abject products of women’s bodies, constructing an ‘obvious’ evil in their apparently unmediated presentation of the aborted foetus. Sitting as such representations do against conceptions of motherhood and babies as pure gift and natural guide to womanhood, they are a radical tactic. Their own violent representation is meant to propel shame for a gruesome, hidden violence done against the child. Feminists have always reacted to these images as being in radically bad taste; as an insult and menace to the women seeking abortions who might have to pass protesters on the way to a clinic; and as scare-mongering generally thanks to out-sized images of otherwise tiny entities. It’s not as if feminists are not also in touch with the visceral and the abject. It’s not as if they do not know what abortion entails practically. Indeed they believe themselves to be better in touch with blood, bodies and their ‘products’ than both men generally and those who profess ‘life’; feminists face up to it. They also see themselves as in touch with much worse in the related bloody violences practised on women’s bodies, such as in rape.  

One of the things that has always left feminists dumfounded about the typical pro-life outlook is that while ‘life’ is held as paramount, this commitment has done little apparently to counter this same constituency’s support of death-dealing in other quarters, most notably in the United States—gun ownership, the murder of abortion providers, the violence of the US imperium generally, and sparse compassion for the women who historically, and still feel they must, put their lives at risk in seeking abortions.  This last image, of the distressed woman pushed to seek an abortion by oppressive circumstances—poverty, rape, incest; for emotional and even physical survival’s sake—remains a key trope on the ‘choice’ side of the debate, as resonant in the recent US protests as at the beginning of second wave feminism. Young women, women of colour, poor women, rape victims all figured in ample media coverage of the Roe v Wade reversal as just such women, and providers were in tears as they were forced to shut their doors on girls and women in distressed circumstances. The violence to be done by closing abortion clinics was worse than any such represented in images of aborted fetuses.

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Of course ‘We won’t go back’ was chanted in defiance, because feminists of all ilks are now caught in the headlight of a vicious reaction, a culture war in which one side is looking like vanquishing that redolent evil, the woman intent on ‘child murder’, and her modern accomplice in state-supported abortion services. In Australia’s much more pragmatic culture, and where the legitimate role of the state is much broader, the culture war around abortion is very much subdued. The philosophical divisions remain, but the institutional reaction could be nowhere near as powerful or the struggle as fraught as it is in the United States. There we are witnessing a crumbling legal and social edifice—possibly the demise of fifty years of institutionalisation of the feminist revolution—in the hands and hearts of the ‘originalist’ jurists now in power. In the American context, abortion has only increasingly become a ‘master category’, pointing to an ultimate value around ‘life’ but also condensing the meanings and anxieties that are fuelling the radical Right’s larger political struggle—offering ordinary folks a visceral connection to overcoming something ‘rotten’ in the established liberal system.

We have had five decades of the abortion struggle defined according to the typical divisions described above: arguments from the social, and for women’s autonomy in decision making about their bodies, and a counter in a moral argument that starts from an absolute principle and ends in an absolute sanction against abortion. It is possible to argue some intervening position that recognises that abortion cannot be wholly reduced to a ‘health’ or social issue, that questions about the moral status of the foetus, especially in late-term abortions, should be taken seriously, even if not in the terms of the radical Right. But today the problem seems that we may all be rather missing key elements of a larger setting, of social and cultural change, that play back on what it means to be a woman and whether we can count on social programs that are intended for them. These changes include new forms of capitalist organisation and development; the long-emerging counter revolution in the conservative reaction already mentioned; a radical shift in understandings of the body and new forms of governance of it; and the role of science in facilitating a culture of radical choice. All of these surely crisscrossed the pro-abortion consciousness of the various constituencies of women who participated in the US demonstrations, as they do feminists in Australia.

We might look to feminism itself, then, for some clues as to how these larger issues have been missed by many in the movement, or arguably have been misunderstood. Another way to put it would be to ask why we are prone to contradictions, logical and cultural, in our thinking that we stand for women.

The terms of the historical struggle over abortion have been boiled down to ‘pro-life’ versus ‘pro-choice’, and both sides seem still to take up the question within this truncated framework. Certainly the liberal media do. Whether these ever accurately described more complex actual positions is one question. The other is whether they adequately even pointed to where the apparent choice between contending frameworks came from, or, in particular, why choice as an ideal emerged from within feminism as an overarching value. Indeed, in hindsight, within the feminist movement what did ‘choice’ really refer to? What did autonomous decision making over one’s own body encompass? Were any of the distinctively modern frameworks for wresting woman’s body into visibility and discourse—rights (social or individual), the righting of a ‘social ill’ like an unwanted pregnancy through humanistic medicine, arguments for ‘equality’ against patriarchal power structures—really able to grasp the nature of the emergent society in which those demands were being put?  

In the old conceptual breakdown of second wave feminism there was a third force of argument, named ‘radical feminism’, neither liberal-individualist nor social-collectivist in its primary formulations. In the hands of authors like Shulamith Firestone it struck one of those discordant notes, speaking a certain truth about second wave feminism’s generative context whose implications were nevertheless unsettling. One might even turn a blind eye to it. Early second wave feminism barely talked about the Pill as a condition of women’s new ‘liberty’ from the 1960s on. Firestone most famously advocated for industrial-scale out-of-body gestation, not as a sci-fi scenario but as a modus operandi for women’s liberation—from their bodies. It helped to plant seeds of a culture and ethics of radical choice facilitated in scientific/technological interventions. Today, Donna Haraway’s ‘cyborg feminism’ is no longer metaphorical; technological surrogacy in Third World countries is carried forward in apparently socialist-feminist arguments for ‘Surrogacy Now’; artificial wombs are being constructed in laboratories. Such interventions are way beyond any humanistic assistance a good doctor might provide a woman in poverty and distress, or even one who has made a bad choice, and knows it, and needs a ‘low-tech’ abortion to set her life back on track. The abortion argument has lingered in this latter humanistic realm, with both social and liberal arguments for abortion as a woman’s choice attached to some notion of women’s right to autonomy from husbands, fathers or brothers in making decisions about their reproductive bodies. Revolutionary, still, no doubt, but rather lagging in a rising context that suggests much more than that kind of freedom. Women may be caught in what might be called a ‘cultural contradiction’, believing their hoped-for autonomy means one thing while the culture draws them into a field of choices whose scope and terms are much more far reaching than they realise.

In this issue of Arena Quarterly, some of the lineaments of an accelerating techno-scientific, politically unstable world are explored. Several point to how in this culture, technoscience, together with consumption capitalism, is undoing the ground of human being and security that has been underwritten in some large degree by the schemas and experiences afforded by our given bodies, in human community—see especially Richard King’s ‘Zero Gravity: Floating Towards Posthumanism’. The abortion debate sits somewhat uneasily here. On the one hand pro-choice feminism argues for women’s capacity and right to rationally choose, but, unbounded in a culture today that doubts the specificity of woman’s body, ‘pro-choice’ tends towards the transcendence of embodied being, including women’s. On the other hand, abortion, in all its visceral reality, and the pity for life it engenders on both sides of the modern debate, absolutely reminds us that women’s bodies are a reality to be contended with.

About the author

Alison Caddick

Alison Caddick is Editor of Arena (third series), was co-editor of Arena Magazine and is an Arena Publications Editor. With a background in the history and philosophy of science, politics and social studies, she writes on techno-science, the body and prospects for social and cultural change.

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